Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Flying into spring

Some observations and announcements as the ground begins to thaw...

Third quarter grades close this week. Fourth quarter here we come!

My seniors have a little more than 30 days left. Still enough time for their "three-search paper" and Lord of the Flies.

My journalism students won five scholastic awards at an area high school journalism contest. There were over 200 entries from more than 30 high schools across New England. I couldn't have been happier for my kids. Definitely one of the year's highlights.

I added a fifth student computer to my classroom. I saw one offered on Craigslist for cheap, and decided to pull the trigger. The workstations are great for group research projects, students looking to pull up and print an assignment, or those in need of a space to write before or after school. They also serve as backups if the school's laptop cart computers lose their charge or malfunction while we're using them in class.

I spent this past weekend in Salem. Visited the Salem Witch Museum, caught a live band at a Mexican restaurant, and went on a walking tour of the city. A much needed respite just before grades, MCAS, and general end-of-the-year craziness.

I recently formed a working group to discuss the possibility of creating a student-staffed writing center at my high school. Right now it looks like the logistics will prove too difficult, as there isn't much time in the school day for students to be able to visit a writing center, and there isn't funding in the budget to hire a professional staff member to supervise it and train writing tutors.

With April comes the poetry unit I do with my 9th graders. It's one of my favorite units, and the kids have a lot of creative freedom to pursue poets and poems of interest. They analyze poetry, write their own poems, and write a research essay on a poet of their choice. They bind all this poetic goodness together in an anthology. There's also poetry reading, poetry slam, and poetry recitation. Check out this past blog post for more info about my poetry unit.

Last week I joined a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball League with some friends. My team, the Alliteration Animals, is poised to dominate. Its strength lies in the infield and bullpen. Outfielders and starting pitchers are always easy to acquire as the baseball season gets underway. But good second baseman, shortstops, and closers are harder to come by. That's who I drafted.

Right now I'm about 170 pages into Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It's engrossing, fast-moving, and extremely violent. With themes from Brave New World, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, it's right up my thematic alley. I know many of my seniors would love it, but it's probably too gruesome and morbid to ever make its way onto our high school's summer reading list or English Department curriculum.

I think it's time to end this missive and get the coffee ready for the morning. I hope all who read this blog are well. Happy spring!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Envy the Night

It's been a while since I tore through a book in less than 24 hours. Faced with the luxury of a week off from school for February Vacation, I easily found time to digest Michael Koryta's latest offering, Envy the Night.

Up until a few years ago, I hadn't been a big fan of crime/mystery novels. I preferred fantasy tales like Lord of the Rings, the ramblings of Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction stories on technology, teaching, and travel.

It was actually one of my former students who turned me toward this genre. She was a fan of Mary Higgins Clark, and usually picked one of her novels when it was time to present an Outside Reading Book for my English class. I was always impressed with how into the books she seemed, and how well she was able to keep her classmates' attention as she detailed key plot events and discussed things like mood, tone, and theme.

Shortly after one of her presentations, I picked up The Night Gardner by George Pelecanos. I finished that in a few days, then went on to read almost all of his books. While searching for a new crime novelist, I came across heaps of praise for Koryta, and decided to check him out. He did not disappoint.

The plot of Envy the Night progresses quickly. Koryta's writing is detailed, yet never at the expense of forward movement. His protagonist, Frank Temple III, is both common and unique, predictable yet independent.

From the inside of the book jacket, Koryta sets in motion a story arc that seems headed for an obvious conclusion - that is, until things in Tomahawk,Wisconsin start to get dicey.

He moved at the first sound of her voice. Whirled and came toward her, fast and aggressive, and she had the sudden thought that surprising him like that had been a bad idea. The overhead lights were long, old-fashioned fluorescent tubes, and they didn't snap on like an incandescent lamp would. There was a hint of a glow, followed by a short humming sound, and then the room filled with light. By that time the guy had closed the gap between them to about five feet, and Nora stepped back, stumbling over the stool. When she pulled up short, he did, too, but her sense of command over the situation was already gone. He'd frightened her - she knew it, and he knew it. (45-46)

Koryta mixes action and insight effectively. Dialogue is authentic, and serves to advance the plot. Koryta also uses internal dialogue - which he places in italics - to provide emotion and backstory to his characters.

It's been a while since I was so engrossed in a novel that I didn't want to do anything else until I completed it. For those who enjoy a clean, plot-driven thriller with characters who don't try to step outside their roles, Envy the Night is highly recommended.